A Victorian Sentinel
I don't know what caused me to pick up those books again, I haven't really given them much thought since I was about fourteen. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I have very little to do while I wait for the academy to start, perhaps it was simply the fact that I am about to join the police academy, the first formal step toward becoming a detective, perhaps it was something deeper, some half forgotten memory screaming from my subconscious. I don't know why it happened, just that it did.
I remember being fascinated by those adventures when I was a kid, but there is so much more to those stories that I never saw until now, so many connections I never made, and the funny thing is that maybe I should have. I've been fascinated by sentinels since I was twelve, I've been actively studying them since I was sixteen, and yet I never recognized what may well be the best documented evidence of their existence, of the inner workings of a sentinel/guide pairing, even though it was right under my nose all along.
This little discovery has served to remind me that irony is a wonderful thing. Sir Richard Burton traveled the world looking for a Sentinel, and he finally found one in the jungles of Paraguay, and yet the best known example of sentinel activity can be traced back to England, to Victorian London to be accurate... so much for pre-civilized cultures.
I wonder if Sir Richard Burton ever recognized the evidence that was right in front of him for what it was. He may have done it, but I seriously doubt it. He died three years after the first reports were made public, and those accounts were fictionalized to the point that even though the identity of the guide --Mr. Doyle-- can be easily guessed, the true name of his sentinel remains a mystery to this day... I only wish I had been as careful with my sentinel's identity.
The strange thing is that Mr. Doyle probably never knew what he was, what they were, and yet the evidence is clearly there, even if in too many instances some of his descriptions --especially those pertaining to his own role-- may be described as inaccurate. I guess that trait was a Victorian blindspot, seeing how Burton never saw it fit to grant the guide a title either. Another thing that serves to cloud matters even further is the fact that this Victorian sentinel apparently had a tendency to rationalize his own findings, dismissing the relevance of his senses, and yet the examples are clearly there. For instance, today it would take a forensic's lab to accurately identify a soil sample, and I'm not entirely sure whether or not the most advanced lab would be able to identify the brand of a cigar by the ashes left behind, but this sentinel could do it with remarkable ease. Maybe those feats were accepted because at the time there were no labs that could possibly corroborate his findings and that absence served to disguise the magnitude of his accomplishments.
In a sense the evidence I've found is both insightful and disturbing: from the sentinel's regular use of drugs to help him deal with the ordinary world to his remarkable skills, to his withdrawal from society when he retired, the only thing that's missing is a comparative study. Unfortunately, though there are a couple of accounts that were written by the sentinel in question after he retired --using the pseudonym his guide had crafted for him-- there is no evidence of his activities before he met his guide, so it is impossible to measure any changes in his performance, however his achievements once he found his guide are unquestionable. To this day, over one hundred years later, he still remains one of the most highly respected detectives of all times, often described as the father of forensic science. That's another trait common to both "western" sentinels: their chosen profession.
As I reread those chronicles from a different perspective there are a number of things I find remarkable. One of them is the sentinel's apparent ability to cope with his senses until he found his guide. The drugs may not be described as a healthy choice by today's standards, but they seemed to have worked, at least for a while. Of course, the laws were different and nowadays that wouldn't be an option, but I wonder whether or not, under different circumstances, a guide would have used some special combination of plants to help the sentinel cope. Another thing that I find fascinating is the fact that they could function as sentinel and guide on an instinctive level, even with no knowledge of what they were. From what I've read they never questioned their own nature and yet that was not an obstacle.
Just like Jim and I, they lived together for the most part, even after it became evident that there was no longer a financial reason to maintain such an arrangement. In fact Mr. Doyle apparently made one or two attempts to move out and get married, but for some reason he always seemed to find himself back with his sentinel (unfortunately some aspects of his fictionalizations are not entirely consistent, and that has been an unexpected difficulty in a couple of instances).
One thing I noticed about those accounts has to do with the fact that Mr. Doyle's sentinel's dominant sense seemed to be sight, to the point that at first I wondered whether he was a full sentinel, or if maybe he had only a couple of enhanced senses, however now I am convinced that that was due mostly to the way in which the sentinel in question described his findings to Mr. Doyle. The sentinel could not share a sound or a scent with his guide, but visual clues could often be pointed out to him in a way in which, even though he could not see them clearly enough to interpret them, he could at least confirm that they were there. Another thing that may have led him to some false visual clues could be found in a sentinel's ability to piggy-back his senses. I have discovered that this sometimes causes the sentinel to identify the input as if it came from the wrong sense. This is a problem that Jim and I have only recently encountered, and it has only happened a couple of times, but we are probably more aware of the nature of our work than Mr. Doyle and his sentinel ever were, so such a problem might have gone unnoticed and it could have been far more common under those circumstances.
I still have a lot of research ahead of me concerning this sentinel, and I'm looking forward to it. Even if that is no longer my "formal" job it should prove to be an interesting experience. As much as I miss anthropology I have to say that A Study in Scarlet is still far more entertaining than most formal sources I've ever encountered.